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How Saints HC Sean Payton dismantles one of the leagues most popular defenses

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How the Saints destroyed one of the NFL’s common defenses

NFL: NFC Championship Game-Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

When you’ve been coaching in the NFL on the offensive side of the ball for over 20 years, as Sean Payton has, you’ve seen so many defensive trends. From the Tampa 2 to the double gapping 3-4 to amoeba 3rd down fronts. The Saints coach has seen them all and given his track record as offensive coordinator/play caller, he has been able to develop thorough plans for all of them.

As the coaching pieces in involved with the Legion of Boom began to disperse throughout the league following the success of those Seahawks teams, they brought to their new teams their Cover 3 defense. Seahawks defensive coaches became head coaches with other teams while other coaches around the league took notice of how Seattle was getting the job done. Within just a few years, you have a league based around Cover 3.

The image above is what a very basic Cover 3 looks like. The 2 cornerbacks and the safety split the deep portion of the field into thirds, the underneath defenders are responsible for the flats on either side and the curl zones on either side.

Here it is from Payton’s 2000 Giants playbook

One of the most famous Cover 3 beating offensive concepts is 4 Verts, or, according to Sean Payton, “double seams”

The math is pretty simple. 3 deep defenders cant cover 4 deep receivers. That’s no good for the defense. There needed to be an answer or adjustment to it to deal with 4 Verts. Without going into great detail, sometime in the mid 90s in a bunker in Cleveland this happened:

Cover 3 match was born. This adjustment basically told the guys who’s job it normally was to cover the flats that if the receiver in front of them went deep they were to cover them man to man. Any other route would turn the coverage back into regular Cover 3.

After the dominance of the Buccaneers and then the Bears on defense throughout the late 90s and 2000s, teams turned to the Tampa 2 style of defense. The Cover 3 was a little out of fashion until the Seahawks brought it back in the 2010s.

In the diagrams that I’ve used so far, the offense is in a 2x2 formation (2 receivers to each side) but what happens when the offense goes into 3x1?

The Seahawks would often check into “Cover 3 Mable” or “Cover 6 Skate” (Saban terms). Both those are inherently the same defense but the number tells the safeties who is going to come down. Most teams line up with 2 high safeties and then one of them will come down after (or right before) the snap to confuse the quarterback. “3” is a strong side rotation. “6” is a weakside rotation.

If I’m not mistaken, the word “mable” or “skate” tells the defense that to the side of the trips, they are playing a true zone Cover 3 system, while to the side with 1 receiver, it’s man coverage.

The cornerback, nickel cornerback, mike linebacker and free safety side of the defense has a 4 over 3 advantage and can handle most offensive concepts.

It’s a fine coverage, but it puts the Will linebacker in a tough spot. His rule is, in Saban language, “3 up is 3” which means that if any of the receivers from the trips side try to run across the field deep, he has to pick him up and match him.

This is where the Saints had a plan and executed it to perfection whenever they came up against this defense. Luckily enough for the Saints, there happens to be a team who is coached by a dude straight off the Seahawks family tree.

Payton showed off some nice concepts knowing this was how the Falcons would play them in Trips.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

In this defense, the Will is a conflicted player because he both has a gap to fill in the run game but also, depending on the routes, might have to cover a receiver deep down the field.

One way the Saints attacked him was by showing him play action but then running a deep route over his head on a double seam/4 Verts concept that kinda looked this this:

When that inside slot receiver runs the vertical route across the field, the Will has to cover him down the field. Not an easy task for the Will especially if Ted Ginn is that receiver. To add to his conflicted position, the Saints ran this off play action hoping that the linebacker would bite on play action and not recover in time to get over the top.

In the game @ Atlanta we can see it happen here.

This ends up being a great play by the linebacker, #59. On 1st & 10 he doesn’t bite on the play action and then can run with Ginn down the field. There’s no way the Saints believed this player would be able to diagnose play action like that. It’s honestly a really great play and how linebackers should react to this.

Of course, as we know, Sean Payton is an asshole.

That’s the same linebacker. This time he bites on the action and then Lewis races behind him.

Saints knew they would get this defense and knew who the conflicted player was. Taking a close look at the touchdown play gives us some nuance in how they could get a player that wide open.

If you look at the concept from Payton’s Giants playbook above you can see the weakside receiver (in the diagram it’s a tight end) run a corner route. In the 2 clips of the Saints running the play, the weakside receiver runs an out route.

Because Payton knows that on the weakside, the defense will man up the receiver, he doesn’t want the cornerback to be hanging around deep down the field to be able to come off the route and squeeze the crossing route from #3.

Normally, when running 4 verts from 3x1 with a vertical route from the weakside, the #3 receiver will try to steer his route to stay between the hashes. He doesn’t want to run into the other receiver or the cornerback. I know teams that will coach him up to stay just inside the safety and the quarterback will throw him wider away from the safety.

With Watson, in the first clip, and Thomas, in the second clip, running shallower routes, the #3 receiver can cross the field completely. Now, the safety has no chance to cover both seams and there’s no cornerback standing there.

It’s the little things, you know.

Later in the Thanksgiving game, the Saints rolled out Trips again but this time they wanted to get the ball to Michael Thomas against the same defense.

Again, they stretched the Will vertically so that Thomas could find space underneath.

#41 on the Falcons has to open up to the field to get to the potential crossing route. Now, there’s no one in the intermediate zone inside. Enter MT13. They know it’s man coverage on the weakside so they give Thomas a double move to get into that vacated space.

Just a lovely concept.

Note: The defender who has to match #3 deep isn’t necessarily the Will. It could be any player you put there. When I draw up a defense, he’s the Will. A lot of teams will call him the Mike. At the end of the day, it’s just semantics plus my very clever title wouldn’t work if I didn’t call him the Will.